Wick Communications

What to do with rumors

In Ethics on July 27, 2017 at 2:17 pm

This week, a local gadfly emailed me and others around town with a scandal. He says a member of the city council cheated on his wife, got caught and moved out of the city. Even if it’s true, I’m not sure it’s as scandalous as someone making this stuff his business and spreading the rumors.

The question is this: Should the local newspaper care one way or another?

In this case, there are two separate issues and I tried to handle them separately. Hopefully, thinking about this one will help with your next such scandalous email.

First, I decided that what was going on in a local city council member’s perfectly legal home life was most likely not newsworthy. Divorces, affairs, arguments… This isn’t the president; I think local people who are all-but volunteers deserve a measure of privacy, even if they are public figures. I know the line is difficult. Perhaps it helps to think of it in terms of what is legal. If the city councilman was busted for smoking pot, which is still illegal here, I would likely run that. An affair is not a criminal matter.

The second issue is potentially newsworthy. If a sitting city council member moves out of town and continues to hold office, that is worth checking on. My first call was to the city councilman himself to say I didn’t care about the rest of it, but wanted to ask point-blank whether he continued to live in town. Then I emailed city hall to find the rules. For all I knew, it was legal for a member of council to move and continue to serve so long as he was a legal resident at the time he qualified to run for office. (The answer here is sort of complicated and involves the definition of “domicile.”) …

We all hear rumors about the public officials in our respective coverage areas. It’s important to separate the wheat from the chaff. Ask yourself what is merely salacious and what a responsible journalist needs to know. What is legal and what is not?

It’s easy to just dismiss these things out of hand, but sometimes there is an actual fire in all that smoke. It’s our job to check out this stuff.

Clay

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